John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The Paradox of Close Friendships

The paradoxes of our closest friendships.

Friendships are a delicate thing. More important than money, title, and prestige…at least we say that it is. Of course we don’t do as good a job of living as though close friendships were more im…portant than the fleeting worldly things we chase each day. But they are. And we eventually come to realize this, though usually much later in life than we want to admit.

And close friendships are, after all, worldly things, too. But they are much harder to make sense of, figure out, plan for, or predict than other worldly things. We don’t collect them like objects and categorize them into neat and sensible patterns.

Psychologists and sociologists have tried to find common traits we have with our closest friends and they have had some success at intellectually explaining aspects of the friendship process. But we still understand the whys and hows of friendship less than we do most other important matters of our daily life.

We can talk about our closest friends in generalities much easier than specifics. They touch something sacred in us that is uncomfortable to talk about. Maybe they see us as we really are. And see us as we want to be. And see us as we have been. And accept—perhaps even celebrate– all three.

Surely there is something transactional about our closest friendships. But try to describe it in 3 sentences. Or 33 sentences. Tough.

And so….and so….and so… I suppose our closest friendships– like the other most valuable things in our lives tend also to be– are better to be savored than rationalized. Better to be appreciated than analyzed into a pseudo-scientific formula. Better to be enjoyed more than explained.

I mention this because I was taken aback moments ago by the beautiful background in the Facebook profile of the wife of probably my dearest friend in this life. If I died tomorrow and had to fill out a form for the afterlife summarizing my life here, under “Name of Best Friend” I would probably write in John Bell.

John Bell and I have the same first name and a lot of quirky personal traits in common. But on paper we’d be hard pressed to make the second round in a Friendship System. John Bell doesn’t care much for politics and didn’t go to law or business school. He’s a licensed social worker and a darned good one along with many other talents and gifts –most of which deviate from mine. He doesn’t love to write and doesn’t care for public speaking. We like some of the same books and movies and music…but only a few.

jyb_musingsIn the picture above, John Bell is captured with a full beard standing in front of a glorious background in Patagonia, Chile where he went mountain climbing for several weeks last summer. John Bell knows me well enough to never bother to invite me on his annual mountain climbing treks. He knows me better than that. I don’t know what I was doing while John Bell was scaling mountain tops in Chile…but I can assure you it involved air conditioning, wifi, a laptop and nearby coffee shops. If I discussed Chile at all during those couple of weeks last summer it was the political economy of the country and pointing out how Chile is an example of free market principles flourishing in South America. Mountain climbing was not part of my conversations. I can’t even grow a full beard. Only small patches. John Bell and I are different like that too.

John showed me a few pictures from his Chile trip and I was awed. I showed him the chapter I wrote for a book recently and suspect he read it. He said he did and liked it–and I believe whatever he tells me. But those avocational interests in our lives aren’t what bind us together as friends either–any more than our vocational interests.

We met in high school and went through adolescence together…holding on to each other when our worlds were turning upside down and helping each other realize that neither was crazy. We were just teenagers. And we got through our 20s as friends. And 30s and 40s and soon both of us will be 50. And in all that time we hardly ever have discussed the worlds we work in or our most time consuming avocations, like mountain-climbing and politics.

We mostly talk about real stuff that goes deep. “How you doin’?” means much more coming from a close friend than a colleague at work. Answering that question alone may take an hour or more. And doesn’t leave time for the less substantial stuff like revenue projections or new client growth or even discussing where we are planning our next family vacation. That stuff just doesn’t seem that important by comparison. And not nearly as interesting as what we do discuss when we talk for a few moments here and a few moments there each week or two in our busy lives. But it’s talk that matters and is honest and inarticulate and from the heart and the gut– rather than fact-filled and goal oriented. It is subjective and personal and without an agenda or “action items.” It’s much more than words to communicate a task or simply information. Probably just the opposite, if there is such a thing.

And then we turn away from each other– after a brief hug—and return to our very different lives. But we keep coming back to that sacred place we have in common–called friendship.


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